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It’s that season again. We have the United States to thank for the modern image of Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, as they call him. That’s also true of greetings cards, which became popular, initially in the United States in the 1880s, thanks to the development of offset lithography, a form of printing.

Britain picked up on the trend early. Hallmark, one of the biggest names in greetings cards, has been around since almost the start, when savvy British makers saw what was happening in the US and started exporting cheaper folded versions there not long before the First World War.

The first Christmas cards were hand-coloured for Sir Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum, who ordered 1000 in 1843. They depicted a family raising their charged glasses in a toast above a draped banner carrying the words A Merry Christmas. He used half himself and sold the rest for a shilling apiece.

It’s thought around nine or ten survive, and each is valued at around £10,000 today.

Some of the most sought-after Christmas cards today are those designed by well-known artists of the late Victorian and early 20th century periods. Kate Greenaway, who illustrated many of the most popular children’s books of the 1880s and ’90s is a favourite, as is her great rival at the time, Walter Crane.

Perhaps the most desirable cards, though are the early Hold-to-Light cards depicting Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. These were generally die-cut and got their name because if you held them up to the light, the die-cut parts lit up, creating a glowing Christmas scene.

When first produced in the US, in postcard form, these were the preserve of the wealthy as each could cost as much as a day’s wages for a working man. Nowadays while religious or other scenes can be had for as little as around £20, the pick of the Santa cards can cost £400.

Collectors tend to specialize in subject matter, such as comic cards, or anniversary type, such as birthday or Christmas cards. Condition can matter a great deal. If they are unused and have not been stuck in albums with the accompanying sticky tape. And particular printers, such as De La Rue, also tempt collectors.